For Teresa Sharpe of Fort Wayne, art started off as an escape.
Now it's become a career and a ticket to compete on the new season of the “Best Ink” tattoo artist reality show on the Oxygen cable TV network.
Sharpe, 28, who works at Studio 13 Creative Skin Design in Fort Wayne, will go against 11 other talented tattoo artists when Season 2 of the series premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday. The winner will get $100,000 and be featured in a cover story in Tattoo magazine.
“They have a really good mix of people on this season of 'Best Ink,'” Sharpe said recently during a phone interview. She was crossing Utah at the time in the midst of a tour of top tattoo shops around the country, where she hopes to showcase her talent and learn from legends in the business.
A Warsaw native, Sharpe said she has been creating art since about age 2 — “always doodling and drawing.” Even before entering high school, she knew she wanted a career in art.
Early on, art offered an escape from a difficult home life: Her parents didn't get along, and they divorced. Her father died when she was 19.
Her mother wasn't able to care for her and her brother, who was two years younger, and her sister, who was six years younger, Sharpe said. So after her freshman year of college, she took off a year to help raise her siblings and get her brother through high school.
A few years later, authorities asked her to adopt her half-brother, who then was age 2. He accompanied her for her senior year at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill.
Her brother now is in the military, and her sister is in college. Her half-brother, now age 8, still lives with her here in Fort Wayne.
Sharpe said she always has been interested in learning and trying a variety of art media and techniques. She hadn't thought about tattooing until she came home from college one summer and found a job as a body piercer at a shop that also did tattoos.
She occasionally flipped through the tattooing magazines and saw art a lot like what she liked to create.
“I felt obligated to try it,” she said.
She served a one-year apprenticeship at Studio 13 in 2008. She started full time there in 2009.
Sharpe describes her style as illustrated realism. She fills her tattoos with a lot of ornamentation, which keeps the flow of the image moving with the flow of the body, she said.
She also is part of the new wave of tattoo artists with fine art backgrounds, who are pushing tattoo images toward art rather than sentimental mementos.
Sharpe works on a commission basis. She charges $150 an hour, with a four-hour minimum for tattoos, it says on her website, http://teresasharpeart.com. Most tattoo projects she accepts take more than four hours to complete, she says.
Sharpe's artistry attracts enough customer demand that she limits new projects to tattoo art she believes will challenge and stretch her.
“You kind of have the freedom to choose what you want to do,” she said. “Everyone becomes kind of an art project for me.”
She's building up a clientele and eventually hopes to create an art exhibit of her tattoo work.
A casting director for “Best Ink” scouted her and then asked her if she would be interested in being a contestant on the show, she said.
“I debated it, because I don't really see myself as a TV personality,” she said. “But I thought, this is an opportunity that doesn't come along very often.”
She applied, learned she had been selected in October and started filming the show in November in Los Angeles. She's not allowed to discuss how she did, but she did provide some insight into the premiere episode.
Competitors face a “flash” impromptu challenge and a tattoo creation challenge each episode, she said.
On the premiere, the flash challenge put them all hanging 50 feet in the air off the side of a building. Within a brief time limit, they had to design a self-portrait in a 4-foot-by-4 foot square on a billboard.
“It was awesome and hilarious,” she said.
She described being on the show as “quite a ride.”
“We don't know anything ahead of time,” as far as the episode's challenges, she said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Sharpe also learned a lot from being on the show, including her limits.
“What I can get done in a short period of time. You learn a lot about how much stress you can handle, and how much creativeness you have in you.”
She found it humbling to work alongside other competitors and see them do great art while she struggled.
“It definitely reminds you, you always have a lot to learn,” she said.
Sharpe, who plans to return to work at Studio 13 in May, now looks forward to watching the show to see what camera angles they used and how production staff edited the show.
“I know it is going to be fun to watch,” she said. “It is going to be fun for my friends to watch me.”